Biden's State of the Union speech will channel historian Jon Meacham's faith in the United States

Historian Jon Meacham.
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When he was vice president of the United States, Joe Biden would sometimes call Jon Meacham, then the editor of Newsweek, for his insight on big-picture ideas.

Having served as a senator for more than 30 years, Biden was, at the time, as close as most political observers thought he would ever come to the presidency itself. In the calls between the two men, Biden relied on Meacham as a sturdy sounding board on national affairs, remembers Daniel Klaidman, then Meacham’s top deputy and today the editor of Yahoo News.

“Jon’s cellphone would ring and I’d hear him say, ‘Hello, Mr. Vice President,’ before closing the door to his office,” Klaidman recalls. “JFK used to call Ted Sorensen his ‘intellectual blood bank.’ It appears to be a similar thing between Biden and Meacham.”

The relationship between Meacham and Biden has only deepened since then. During the first two years of the Biden presidency, Meacham has served as something of an in-house intellectual and a speechwriter called upon at high-stakes moments — like tonight’s State of the Union address.

A view of the U.S. Capitol at night.
President Biden will deliver his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

Meacham was recently at the presidential retreat at Camp David, where he was one of several top advisers who helped craft the president’s State of the Union speech, which is expected to celebrate the nation’s economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic while serving as the preamble to Biden’s expected announcement that he will seek reelection.

A son of the South who still lives in his native Tennessee — Meacham teaches at Vanderbilt, in Nashville — he is the author of a celebrated Andrew Jackson biography published just days after the Obama-Biden ticket triumphed in the 2008 presidential election.

He is also something of a politician, with influence most academics and journalists can only dream of. At the behest of the Biden campaign, he spoke at the 2020 Democratic National Convention. “The historic seriousness of what the country is facing is a huge piece of what we have talked about in the campaign. We felt it was important to have a historian like Jon Meacham to put all of this [in] perspective. This is a moment of crisis in our country’s history,” a campaign spokesman told the New York Times.

Biden continued to rely on Meacham after defeating President Donald Trump. “I do occasionally advise the president-elect on historical matters and some major speeches,” Meacham told the Financial Times in December 2020.

President Biden holding Jon Meacham’s book on Abraham Lincoln.
Biden in November, holding Jon Meacham’s book on Abraham Lincoln, “And There Was Light.” (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

To those who know him, the 53-year-old historian’s orotund voice can almost be discerned in Biden’s frequent invocations of a unique national destiny, a trope more indebted to conservative hero Ronald Reagan than to contemporary Democrats. That is unlikely to be an accident: On the 30th anniversary of Reagan’s 1989 departure from the White House, Meacham praised him in the New York Times for persistent faith in “the possibilities of a country that was forever reinventing itself,” contrasting his optimism with Trump’s dark nostalgia.

It was Meacham who penned Biden’s inaugural address, in which the new president — standing on the same ground where, two weeks before, violent pro-Trump rioters had stormed the Capitol — pledged to “restore the soul and to secure the future of America.”

That was also the central theme of Meacham’s bestselling “The Soul of America,” published in the midst of the Trump presidency. In that book, he wished for a president with “a temperamental disposition to speak to the country’s hopes rather than to its fears.”

Biden clearly envisions himself in similar terms. Meacham crafted the president’s speech on democracy, delivered from Philadelphia in early September, with the congressional midterms only weeks away. In those remarks, Biden charged that “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans” — his preferred term for the former president’s political movement — “represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic.”

Former President Donald Trump at a rally in Miami.
Former President Donald Trump at a rally in Miami on Nov. 6, 2022. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Some observers believe that Biden’s decision to cast the midterms as a referendum on democracy itself helped prevent Republicans from taking control of the Senate or making bigger gains in the House.

Tuesday night’s address is likely to be a culmination of themes that Meacham and Biden have been discussing for years. Some of those themes appear in Meacham’s new book, “And There Was Light,” about Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War.

Meacham notes that Lincoln “governed a nation in which a violent and vociferous element was captive to its own visions,” a reference to the secessionist South that seems to just as readily apply to today’s political extremists, inculcated in internet conspiracy theories and deeply out of touch with reality.

Then, as now, extremes pulled the nation apart, making irrevocable disunion the certain fate of the short-lived experiment called the United States.

Or so it must have seemed to many during the darkest days of the Civil War. The president, Meacham writes, must always keep believing otherwise. “It is a fact of American history that we are not always good, but that that goodness is possible,” he writes. “Not universal, not ubiquitous, not inevitable — but possible.”